(First published on December 15th, 2018)
When the entire world is adamant to go to hell in a hand basket, it makes little sense to bemoan one’s own shortcomings. But sanity demands that the process of introspection continues despite the countless crises one encounters. Hence the question: What is wrong with us?
It is not an epiphenomenal question. Nor the usual ranting prelude to pontification. Something fundamental is missing in Pakistan. I choose to call it imagination. An average dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses”. But I talk of something slightly more profound. The imagination under discussion is like blood in your veins. Like blood that brings fresh oxygen to all parts of the body, the fundamental job of this imagination is to bring fresh ideas to all organs of state and society, from head to toe. Now take a fresh look. Do you see imagination is fulfilling that fundamental task in the Islamic Republic? Are all parts of the state and society functioning to their full potential? Is there synergy among them? Is talent truly rewarded the way it should be? Does competition produce the desired results? Is there a built-in desire in each organisation to aspire for a better tomorrow? The answer is an unambiguous no.
So, what is wrong here? And is there a way to fix it.
You must have seen people placing the blame on the war we endured for the past one and a half decade. When there is so much insecurity, pain and suffering, how any society can function as an unmolested organism, they argue. There are others who see shadows of khaki in every setback. Had we been a functioning democracy throughout our young nation’s life, we would have been different, they say. But sirs, look around. Look at the unimpeded functioning democracies in our neighbourhood and elsewhere. They have also let themselves go. And then there is the lot that sees the moral, ethical and professional decay in the political class as the key reason. The sheer magnitude of corruption in our society forestalls prospects off synergy, they maintain. Corruption, undoubtedly, is a terrifying and paralysing menace. But it is not as if the other countries that have excelled in various fields have been totally free of corruption. Far from it. And like any other social vice corruption is a symptom not the disease. The failure of character and nation-building project in the society is bound to have a deeper explanation.
Perhaps the problem needs to be qualified further. We have spent an age listening to leaders and politicians talking about our country possessing all four weathers, long unbroken coastline, mountains, deserts and other attractions like flora and fauna. Yet the performance of our tourism industry has always been subpar. When you ask anyone responsible you are immediately told that our core values are inconsistent with the environment needed for tourism. Hence the focus immediately shifts to what cannot be done and not what is possible. It is not as if there is nothing inconsistent to our ‘core value’ that goes on in our country. Countries with far more restrictive cultural space generate much more business through tourism. We simply do not want to deliver.
Pakistanis like entertainment and storytelling. The country spends huge amounts on importing entertainment software from abroad. Meanwhile, our entertainment remains stale and parts of it simply stink. Storytellers, playwrights, screenplay writers don’t know where to take their ideas. Book publishing has almost disappeared. Take your book to a publisher and you are asked to pay in advance. There are no effective guilds for writers and no ideas bazaars for thinkers. Take your idea to anyone influential for support and if there is any substance in it, you will soon find that your benefactor has cut you out of the process and become sole proprietor of the product.
Cheating, theft and deception are not alien to the civilised world. But where there is malpractice, you will find many checks and balances present to ensure that the fountainhead of imagination does not dry up. Is it not the function of human imagination to find potential in the abstract and to hone it? If any major idea or check is missing in the society, it is the job of imagination to identify the vacuum and introduce ideas to take its place. Where is ours?
When Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to show the brain image of a child with stunted growth in his inaugural speech, it gave birth to countless political memes in social media where political opponents were shown as the products of stunting. But such memes were right about one. Something crucial is missing. This image could easily exhibit the stark difference of imagination between our citizens and those of other countries.
Two decades ago, I wrote a piece suggesting that Pakistan might be suffering from what Emile Durkheim called anomie. Anomie is a situation where society provides little guidance to the individual. It is the name of the fracture between individuals and society. The reason perhaps could be found in the absence of the sense of belonging or ownership. But what to talk of the common man on the street even your elite doesn’t seem accustomed to thinking on higher wavelengths. We expect less, demand less and settle for even lesser. This needs to change.
But how to change is the real question. When you look at the expanse of a river you can immediately feel the need for a bridge across it. But the problem with the abstract things like imagination is that they need hard work, research and new policy language to develop. No one among our high and mighty seems to have time for it. How often do you come across a parliamentary debate or a television discussion based on this theme?
I have covered many parliaments in my journalistic career. I don’t remember anyone asking this simple question in its simple humility: What is wrong with us? When someone rhetorically or half-jokingly asked this question, the answer that came next was as dismaying. Blame somebody else. Civilians blame military dictators. Military juntas blamed civilian leadership. When both sat together, they blamed the colonial legacy, the cultural norms or economic conditions. But here is the kicker. In a society afflicted by anomie you can blame anyone you like, but every citizen underperforms. Ask yourself: have you realised your full potential. I have never felt I have realised more than 15 to 20 per cent of my true potential.